Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
February 8, 2004
BASEBALL: Talking Baseball With Robin Roberts
Joe Posnanski of the KC Star had an interview a few weeks back with Robin Roberts, baseball's best pitcher in the early 1950s and, relative to the standards of his time, one of the two or three greatest workhorses ever to take the mound in his prime. I've been reading Roberts' autobiography, My Life in Baseball (I read books a few bites at a time, and I'm generally in the middle of several at any given time); Roberts has some interesting stories (nearly everything he tells Posnanski here is almost verbatim of how he relates the same stories in the book). Roberts is 77 now, but apparently still sharp as a tack. I had the good fortune of meeting him at an autograph event a year ago; he looks kind of like Don Rumsfeld these days, a square-jawed, broad-shouldered man in his 70s.
One amazing detail that Posnanski catches that also struck me in reading Roberts' book: Roberts once threw 28 consecutive complete games. Descriptions of Roberts' tools as a pitcher often make him sound like Mariano Rivera: a guy who was able to get away with throwing nearly all fastballs due to a combination of pinpoint control, outstanding velocity and remarkably nasty movement on his heater. Roberts' vulnerability to the gopher ball made him less effective than Rivera, but imagine Mariano Rivera throwing 340 innings a year, and you've got a heck of a pitcher. (Oddly, Roberts reports that the consistent velocity and movement just came to him one day in 1947 while pitching in a summer college league; his mechanics had just clicked).
That workload -- or perhaps just an idiot manager -- caught up with him near the end of the 1955 season, though. Roberts notes in the book that he threw a complete game victory on August 19 of that year (his 20th win for the sixth straight season), and his manager, Mayo Smith, called him in the next night to relieve. He retired one batter to end the game without incident, but his arm wouldn't straighten out after his next start, and he was never the same pitcher, going 2-5 the rest of the year and seeing his ERA balloon to 4.45 the following year. Smith -- who would later lose ace Denny McLain, a similar pitcher, to arm trouble in Detroit -- had been trying to get the Phillies to .500; they finished the season 77-77, 21.5 games out of first place.